Christmas in Russia: Christmas since 1991
Since the fall of the Communist government in 1991 and the re-establishment of the independent nation of Russia, the Russian people have begun to revive the celebration of Christmas. The most noticeable change is the increase in religious observance. In recent years Russian Orthodox churches have noted record attendances at Christmas services. According to a 2003 poll, 27 percent of Russians stated that they planned to go to Christmas services, and 18 percent indicated that they might go. Many fewer people, however—only 12 percent — observed the rigorous pre-Christmas fast.
A Westerner might find a Russian Orthodox Christmas Eve service both tiring and fascinating. The service starts at midnight and lasts until close to dawn. The only seats in the church are lined up against the walls and are generally reserved for the elderly, the sick, and pregnant women. All others stand during the services. The candlelight flickering off the religious paintings that cover the walls, the scent of burning incense, the singing of the choir, and the chanting of the priest and congregation combine to create an atmosphere of religious mystery. Christmas Eve services conducted by the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Alexi II, are now broadcast on Russian television.
Some of the old Soviet customs linger, however. Gala New Year’s Eve celebrations, which include champagne and fireworks, continue to find favor with the people. Winter festivals still provide Russians with special holiday season entertainments. Grandfather Frost continues to bring presents to children on New Year’s Eve. What’s more, he still finds New Year’s trees there to greet him. Some writers believe that these old Christmas customs will eventually gravitate back to the celebration of the Nativity. For the time being, however, the celebrations that take place on New Year’s Eve and Day still constitute the major midwinter festival in Russia. A poll taken in 2003 indicated that 88 percent of Russians approved of giving gifts on New Year’s Day, while only 9 percent viewed gift exchanges as an appropriate Christmas custom.
Some Russians have begun to include elements of Western Christ-mas celebrations in their holiday festivities. In recent years Santa Claus-shaped decorations and treats have appeared in many stores. Moreover, some people have begun to celebrate December 25, a day known as “Catholic Christmas” in Russia.